What did we learn from the programme about wider public service reform?
Public service innovation takes many forms. Over the past two years I worked with a group of 11 great teams to explore and test the potential of new ways to fund public parks in the UK. Learning to Rethink Parks, our report on impact of projects and the habits we advocate are needed for wider change, was launched in February and has had good traction across the parks sector. But what has Rethinking Parks told us about government innovation?
Here are three insights from Rethinking Parks that I think transcend the realm of parks into the wider public sphere:
New people can, and do, come forward to address public service challenges
There’s an assumption that the most vocal organisations will bridge the gap between local authority funds and public service needs. However, we’ve learnt it’s more than parks' friends groups who are willing to step up and contribute to public parks. For example, Rethinking Parks teams have had volunteers from the Sunday Assembly come forward to improve London’s Red Lion square, and staff from large corporates such as EE and Cummins regularly volunteering across Darlington’s parks. New partners came forward too; from architectural firms, lawyers, tech companies through to the National Trust. Interestingly groups who are the visible supporters of parks are not always best placed to drive change. Friends groups play a massively valuable and varied role for parks. Some are focused on protecting the natural or cultural heritage of parks, others are adept at fundraising or holding events.
But we’ve learnt we shouldn’t assume all friends groups want to take on broader roles. Instead the public sector should consider how wider collaborations might step up as well and complement the important work advocacy and support organisations do. We’ve seen this appetite mirrored across other Nesta-supported programmes too, such as through Cities of Service, where people previously disconnected from key city challenges have stepped up to help kids improve their reading, to beautify neighbourhoods or help people save on their energy bills.
By casting a wide net, it’s possible to tap into what is a phenomenal collective will to support and sustain our public assets.
Partnerships can bring new energy, ideas and resources: this requires a shift in power as well as responsibilities.
Partnerships can be effective ways to leverage new ideas, networks, skills and resources. In a local authority context, formalised partnerships can also create a useful way to shoulder the risk of doing something new, and engage with a wider set of stakeholders who might be traditionally weary of, or uninterested in, council communications. While the opportunities partnerships bring are not a new discovery from Rethinking Parks, the experiences of teams highlight the conditions required for partnerships to work effectively.
The most productive Rethinking Parks partnerships considered everyone on an equal footing, and viewed the differences between partners as a benefit rather than an obstacle. Bristol ParkWork partners shared ideas and labour relatively equitable in the development phase – drawing on each other’s expertise and resources; they all knew what they had to bring to the table and were committed to sharing the load to make the idea work. A similar balance played out with the Park Hack Innovators group – where businesses and residents can contribute and develop ideas to improve parks, with priorities for action agreed in tandem with Hackney Council. All partners are valued, and none exploited.
These forms of partnerships signal a positive change in how are public services are, and can be, improved and delivered.
"With great power comes great responsibility"
As our friendly neighbourhood Spider-man knows “With great power comes great responsibility” and what both Park Hack and Bristol ParkWork have done is shifted away from the default practice that assumes all power ought to rest with local authority decision makers. The best partnerships identify that if you want a wider range of people and players to take responsibility our public services, then the power dynamics of the relationships need to change too.
Savings can be achieved while services are enhanced
Through Rethinking Parks we’ve demonstrated that enhancing services while reducing costs isn’t just the realm of digital transformation. Burnley’s Go to the Park project is reducing costs of maintaining its park, whilst improve people’s sense of a connection with nature and the biodiversity of parks. The Burnley team knew people love to connect with nature in parks and built on this idea to change their planting and maintenance regimes. As a consequence they are on track to improve biodiversity and reduce spending; staff have reported improved wellbeing benefits as they are less isolated (volunteers are paired with staff) and the parks are more dynamic spaces as meadows with paths mown through replace areas where grass once grew.
This mix of cost savings and service enhancement isn’t always easily won, and the two don’t always go together. When framed well, and when aligned with what people really value about a service or experience, opportunities really do exist to do things differently.
Public parks might seem like an unlikely suspect as a beacon for public service innovation, but our teams have demonstrated great ideas can grow and flourish, even in the outdoors.